Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Youth Bandwagon

Earlier this week, we celebrated
International Youth Day. But, even without an official United
Nations-sanctioned day to provoke commentary, it seems as if everyone
has something to say about this demographic. It is interesting that the
UN’s definition seems to be more about what this demographic can be than what it is: Youth, it states,
“is best understood as a period of transition from the dependence of
childhood to adulthood’s independence and awareness of our
interdependence as members of a community.” Youth, it seems, is about
potential. Let’s come back to that in a bit.  
Depending on how you age-bracket “youth,” we are talking large numbers: almost 2 billion, over 50 percent of the world’s population. Irrespective
of the exact ages defining “youth,” youth are the dominant demographic.
Go online and search youth bulge and you will get millions of hits. It
seems that every organization – public, private, for-profit, and
nonprofit – has something it wants to say about youth or to youth; we
all want to engage them, mobilize them, protect them, work with them,
help them, pitch them.  But how many of us really want to listen to
them? How well equipped/prepared are we to do this? Equally important,
how prepared are we, once we have heard what youth are telling us, to
change our strategies and plans, in response to what we are hearing?
The organization I represent, Plan International, works
on behalf of and with children and youth. For Plan, effective youth
participation is a strategic asset and not a “tick-the-box” exercise. We
have established youth in governance structures at different levels –
in the local community, and at the national and international levels to
encourage and facilitate. Globally, 24 countries have established Youth
Advisory Boards, eight youth serve on a global steering committee to
develop strategies for youth governance, and nine countries have a youth
member on their Board of Directors.  We also have a youth board member
at the U.S. national office and youth representation on Plan's Members
Assembly – the Plan Federation’s governing body.   



Making all of this work, and I mean
really work – so that it leads to meaningful rather than tokenistic
engagement – takes constant commitment.  You have to address “adultism.”
This means that adults often have to modify their behavior, delivery,
and methods of engagement in a work environment when young people are
participating. Staff need to be skilled in this (and coached/trained),
and the organization needs to devote time to creating a safe environment
for meaningful participation (one that encourages all opinions and
makes it safe to dissent). We have found it is useful to have mentors at
all levels of the
organization. Bottom line: It requires that you adapt timelines for
planning, design, and execution; change staffing patterns; and  invest
in training. You need to ensure there is appropriate time to prepare
youth to engage effectively with the organization and prepare the
organization to engage effectively with youth.


One
other observation. Much of what is written about youth assumes a basic
set of common characteristics. But, this is in fact a wildly
heterogeneous demographic. W
hen engaging youth in
decision-making, we need to understand that one size does not fit all.
You have to employ different methods, create a safe environment, and be
creative and participatory. 
It has been said time and again that
youth are too inexperienced and too uninformed to participate in
decision-making. But I would argue that their inexperience, their
willingness to try new things, think outside the box, and push the
limits, is exactly what makes youth opinions and perspectives so
valuable. Over the past few years, we saw youth organize themselves all
over the world to take down dictators, change stagnant, oppressive
regimes, and demand better job opportunities so they can contribute to
society in positive ways. Youth are willing to put themselves out there,
stand up for what they believe in, and organize their collective voice
to demand the rights they deserve. 


Let’s stop thinking that youth is
only about potential. Youth are accomplished individuals in their own
right, with a lot to say. They’re not leaders of tomorrow, or potential
to be harnessed in five or 10 years. They are more informed, connected,
and global than any other youth cohort in history.  They are a rich
source of creativity and ideas. We have to stop pitching them and
instead invest in and prepare to listen and act on what they are telling
us. Plan has found that this is hard work. We think it is worth it.    


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